The Designer Workplace

The Designer Workplace

Debra Cash visits the Museum of Modern Art's "Workspheres" exhibition.


Kiwi is the color of the moment. There's no escaping it, not even in the august galleries of the Museum of Modern Art. With its "Workspheres" exhibition, there was little to distinguish the museum gallery from a retail furniture showroom elsewhere in Manhattan–except that it was almost impossible to try out the merchandise.

Curated by the cosmopolitan and well-connected Paola Antonelli, the recent show seemed to suggest that if you're not enchanted by a gelatinous computer keyboard or a desk that looks like a surfboard, you're just not cool enough to triumph in the New Economy. The Workplace of the Future is a place where everyone is empowered, everyone is a road warrior and everyone has a boss–or investors–more than willing to buy desk chairs at $800 a pop.

Offices have captured the imagination at least since Bob Cratchit with his fingerless gloves grasped a ratty quill pen and cowered under Ebenezer Scrooge's demands. Contemporary Western offices are places where (mostly) adults read, write, compute, analyze, market, sell, argue, solve problems and display their know-how, power or impotence–their own and that of the company–generally acting in ways they hope will contribute to the company's bottom line. Offices can be located in landscaped "office park" cul-de-sacs off major highways or leased out within the skin of urban skyscrapers. They can be wedged into multipurpose buildings and malls. Increasingly, they are built into settings that whisper of other traditions, like renovated mills, warehouses and industrial lofts. With work forces that swell and shrink–the business-world term is "churn"–full-time and contract workers make temporary alliances that often mirror a company's rising and falling stock price.

It's interesting–and telling–that MoMA made a deliberate decision to focus on office work and the office-type work that is done at home and on the road. Antonelli and her colleagues excluded manufacturing environments, hospitals, stores or schools from their survey. Unlike "production" work, it's hard for an outsider to tell what, if anything, is being produced in most office environments. Formal offices are the most abstracted of work environments. This may be how MOMA got away without being seriously challenged on its rhetoric.

Because the "Workspheres" exhibit was not about workers at all. It was not even about work. First and foremost, it was about R&D for a new generation of high-tech toys. Look for the Snowcrash Netsurfer Computer Divan–essentially a souped-up Jefferson chair–and the smart pillows embedded with stereo speakers so you can do your business in bed (just right for the Yoko Ono wannabe on your block) in a Sharper Image catalogue coming to you. The MaxiMog Global Expedition Vehicle System is an SUV on testosterone, for off-road trips on Mars. "Workspheres" is a justification-in-design for the ways that corporations and business theorists rationalize their employment and labor decisions. Working longer hours? Your hydraulically operated padded room offers a side of entertainment along with the requisite data-crunching. No time for lunch? Eat in the company cafeteria on digital placemats so that you can surf the net while you dine. Tired out from twelve-hour days? Here's a nap mat with its own LifeSaver-shaped "Do Not Disturb" ring you can hang from the door of your office–if your office happens to have a door.

OK, Matali Crasset, the designer of the nap mat, apparently was only fooling. For the same reason, I smiled at Thomas Bernstrand's Sugar Ray ceiling lamp, on which a disgruntled worker can literally punch out the company's lights. There were traces of appreciation for the needs of human bodies in humane settings in designs that offer the pleasures of sensuous materials like dense felt and corrugated cardboard. "Workspheres" also publicized some design ideas that would really work, including Snowcrash's hanging file racks that create semipermeable screens between workstations, and the stepped, three-tiered display shelves that cocoon around the back of a desktop surface like a theatrical backdrop in Brian Alexander's Drift System Desk, designed to keep a number of paper files or projects visible simultaneously (Drift's backless tricycle seating is better left to the daycare set).

But most of the designers of the products found in "Workspheres" seem to have taken their directions from a combination of business-school blather and the kind of advertising hype that promises you can work on your laptop on some remote mountaintop, sending Great Thoughts and spreadsheets out to your colleagues between tousling your 10-year-old's hair and avoiding the grizzly bears.

Let's take an overtly uncontroversial example. While most of the office equipment and furnishings in the exhibition are designed to be applicable to any generic office setting–a warning signal if there ever was one–the Jack Flexible Workstation designed by Andrew Jones is an exception. It is designed expressly for call-center workers. A simple desk wired for phone and computer hookups is surrounded by a curving fixed screen that gives the call-center worker visual and acoustic privacy. It is not unlike a grad student's library carrel or a church confessional. Clearly, the intention of the design is that the worker will be focusing on the conversation she is having with a customer over the phone and the information she will be pulling up from–and recording in–her computer.

But there's one catch. I've observed call centers in the United States and England where tech support reps were troubleshooting network problems, nurses were documenting workers' compensation claims, librarians were directing researchers to websites and documents, phone company workers were settling accounts and insurance claims processors were talking to customers who had totaled their cars. In none of these settings is the work done in an isolated way. In fact, call-center workers regularly explain that they couldn't possibly get their work done at home, for they rely on each other. There's even a name for the common practice of sticking their heads over the top of a cubicle to try to get each other's attention: prairie-dogging.

The knowledge that call-center reps provide to their customers is collective knowledge. This is not because they're individually incompetent; far from it. Call-center workers who want to do a good job often want others to validate and test their hypotheses, expand their awareness of alternatives and give them tips on how to be more efficient or accurate next time. No one has enough knowledge to answer every question or anticipate every unforeseen combination of events. Life is just like that. It's called learning.

The wall texts for "Workspheres" may have been dense with references to collaboration, but the designs on display told an opposite story. Like the Great Man theory of art-making, work was represented as an autonomous, individual activity. That rarely happens in art, in offices or even, truth be told, in industrial design studios.

It's an unnecessary misstep. The sponsors of "Workspheres" included the big names in office furniture design: Haworth, Herman Miller, Knoll and Steelcase, as well as the Xerox Foundation. Over the past decade and a half, they have collectively conducted or commissioned some of the best empirical research in the world into how people actually get their jobs done, what makes them crazy about office settings and workplace technologies, and how workers have tried to fix what is broken and innovate within the scope of the limited resources at their disposal. We need designs that take the knowledge and expertise of workers themselves as the starting point for every important investigation. If the designer is going to be elevated to the status of auteur, he or she should at least be expected to try the job he is designing for, so he knows whereof he pontificates. At another and equally important end of the spectrum, the British Design Council has engaged in serious analysis of how work is penetrating the public sphere, and its members have begun to discuss how a public infrastructure of Internet kiosks, data connections and other resources can be built, and how the costs of implementing it can be shared and amortized among the companies that will ultimately profit from such access.

In the bouncy chairs and butterfly-wing desks of the workplace future envisioned at MoMA, work is an arena where there is much room for creative ferment but few contested goals. By the time one reached the last galleries, this blindness to real-world politics became absurd. The week I went to see the show the Senate voted to repeal the ergonomic rules that OSHA estimated would protect workers from 4.6 million repetitive-motion injuries over the next ten years. Around the same time, the Supreme Court ruled that state employees cannot sue for damages under the Americans With Disabilities Act. It makes you wonder what's more important–a choice of personal weather patterns displayed overhead on one of Naoto Fukasawa's beautifully poetic "personal skies" screens or, say, an employment contract that provides a family with adequate health insurance?

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